With her debut feature Blue Car, Karen Moncrieff
zeroed in on a troubled adolescent girl and a relationship with her favorite teacher; the film had the focus of a short story (a mixed blessing for a feature film). In The Dead Girl, her scope widens but that sharpness remains. The girl of the title is found in a field, and Moncrieff spends time with four women affected by her death: Arden (Toni Collette
), who finds the body; the morgue attendant/student (Rose Byrne
) who receives it next; Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt
), the wife of a man who may know more about the death than he lets on; and a mother (Marcia Gay Harden
) in town to identify a body.
Following these sideline characters, the screenplay circles the girl herself, a prostitute played by Brittany Murphy in a final, haunting segment. This structure eschews typical ensemble payoffs -- only a few of the characters intersect and they sure as hell don't learn valuable lessons from each other -- for its own subtle rewards. These narrative threads, never running over 20 minutes, are as close to short fiction as Blue Car, but the new film also has the unity of a fine, slim story collection. Article continues below
In one of the shortest and most affecting segments, we catch a glimpse into the life of the morgue attendant (Byrne) whose sister is missing and presumed alive -- at least by her parents, specifically her eternally hopeful mother (Mary Steenburgen
) -- for many years. When the dead girl turns up, Byrne finds herself tantalized by the idea that it might be her sister -- and that this sad chapter in her life may be forced to end. A mealtime confrontation between Byrne and Steenburgen will break your heart from two different directions.
The film is full of strong, brief performances by actors who, like Byrne, you may not have thought much about in who knows how many other movies. (Toni Collete and Giovanni Ribisi
are exceptions in their segment together, not because they aren't effective, but because they're both as they always are: Collette excellent and Ribisi playing a hillbilly man-child.) Even the usually mannered Marcia Gay Harden reins it in as a sheltered, shell-shocked mother, breathing new life into what used to be a cartoonish specialty for her.
Despite working small wonders with her large cast, Moncrieff remains a better writer than director: A surprising percentage of The Dead Girl is shot in close-up, with a droning score piped in with unnecessary frequency. The resulting claustrophobia may be fitting, but the tight quarters also make the movie feel oppressive, at odds with its own observant reflection, even more so than the fact that the non-dead leads are so united in meekness.
But while a little breathing room would've been appreciated, it's hard to quibble with how well Moncrieff the director preserves the stark sadness of Moncrieff the writer -- that is, so carefully that the faces of The Dead Girl, and their ways of reacting to utter awfulness, are preserved in your memory for days afterward.